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Increasing K-12 spending by $639 million up for vote

The Wisconsin State Capitol dome in Madison is seen, Aug. 24, 2017. (WLUK/Courtney Ryan)

MADISON (AP) -- State spending on K-12 schools would increase by $639 million over the next two years, low-spending districts would get a boost and wealthier families could qualify for taxpayer-funded private school vouchers under a plan Monday from the Republican-controlled budget committee.

The heart of Gov. Scott Walker's education funding proposal the Joint Finance Committee planned to approve would raise per-pupil spending by $200 this year and $204 next year for all schools, at a cost of about $505 million.

Walker has touted the school aid increase as he tries to get his approval rating over 50 percent before an expected run for a third term next year. Democrats have long hammered Walker for cutting public school funding while expanding the private school voucher program and effectively ending collective bargaining for teachers and other public workers.

Republicans on the budget committee praised the additional funding, while Democrats said it doesn't make up for previous cuts and other moves by Walker and Republicans that Democrats said have hurt public schools.

Walker had originally tied the additional per-student funding to schools showing that teachers are paying at least 12 percent of their health care costs, consistent with the Act 10 collective bargaining law passed in 2011.

Schools balked, arguing the additional mandate was an unnecessary burden to receive the money. Republicans who control the budget committee were taking a different approach, requiring schools to report how they are meeting the law but not tying aid to those responses.

Walker didn't propose loosening income limits in the voucher program, which allows qualifying families to pay for a private-school education for their children using a taxpayer subsidy.

Outside of Racine and Milwaukee, the most a family can earn and still qualify is 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or nearly $45,000 for a family of four. That would increase to $53,460, or 220 percent of poverty, under the vote the committee planned to take Monday.

Democrats have long opposed expansion of the voucher program, saying it takes tax dollars away from public schools. It cost about $244 million last school year to pay for vouchers for nearly 34,000 students. About 3,000 students received vouchers to attend private schools outside of Milwaukee and Racine.

The budget committee also planned to increase the maximum that low-spending districts can spend from a combination of local property taxes and state aid per student from $9,100 to $9,300 this year and $9,400 the next. It would then increase $100 a year before capping out at $9,800.

State law limits how much schools can spend based on a combination of local property taxes and state aid. But districts are locked in at different property tax rates based on what they were spending in 1993 when the law capping what they can levy took effect. That has led to complaints from mostly rural districts that spend less than others but can't raise any more.

The increasing spending would be paid for with a mixture of state aid and higher local property taxes.

The Joint Finance Committee was voting on education issues as part of a push to finish the state budget by mid-September. Committee co-chairs said they hoped to complete their work next week, but no deal had been reached yet on the biggest sticking point -- transportation funding. Once the $76 billion budget passes the committee, it heads to the Assembly and Senate for passage.

The committee also unanimously approved $1 billion in funding for state building projects.

Projects that would be approved include $75 million for a new crime lab and regional law enforcement facility in the Milwaukee area; $12.4 million for the state veterans home at King to improve water quality, the electrical system and cooking and meal delivery equipment; and $11 million to remove and replace the Little Falls Dam at Willow River State Park.

The committee added a number of building projects the governor didn't fund, including about $192 million in seven projects across the University of Wisconsin System, $7 million for a geriatric prison facility and $1 million for unspecified improvements to the basement of the Capitol.

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